Can Micro Certifications Match Government’s Real-World Needs?

Certifications are the baseline for assessing proficiency in information technology and cybersecurity skills. But many career cyber professionals say required certs underestimate the value of on-the-job training and experience.

Others complain about the cost of obtaining and maintaining certifications that often don’t match up to the narrow responsibilities of a given job. They see emerging micro certifications – short, online training programs followed by knowledge exams – as more practical in many cases.

At the same time, new national standards are taking root to try to better tie knowledge requirements to specific job categories and certifying organizations are revising their programs.

Anil Karmel Founder / Chief Executive C2 Labs

Anil Karmel
Founder / Chief Executive
C2 Labs

“Nothing replaces real world expertise,” said Anil Karmel, founder and chief executive at IT startup C2 Labs of Reston, Va., and a former deputy chief technology officer at the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). “Having on the job skills is invaluable, especially in the cyber realm when you are entrusted to protect our nation’s critical IT assets. The aim is to strike the right balance between real world experience, certifications, and training, Karmel said.

Certifications were crucial early in his career, Karmel said. As he moved into mid-to-senior level positions however, his needs changed and so did the qualifications required for those jobs. The higher you go, the more experience and past performance defines your capabilities.

Karmel was a solutions architect at the Energy Department’s Los Alamos National Laboratory in Santa Fe, N.M., where he helped develop and launch a private cloud that let researchers automatically request virtual servers on-demand.

“As I grew and became a systems administrator, I focused on industry or vendor-specific certifications, such as VMware, which enabled me to build the private cloud at Los Alamos.”

Certifications can be seen as a baseline, onto which you may want to add additional skills. Micro training programs are one way to do that, Karmel noted.

For instance, a security analyst might need to move beyond incident response – reacting to events that could have a negative impact on an organization’s network – to learn about incident management. It focuses on preparing formal policies and procedures, as well as having the necessary tools in place, to thwart cyber threats. An online micro certification class on the Incident Management Lifecycle could meet that need.

Micro certification, a growing trend?
Micro certifications are narrowly focused, non-traditional skills training in which participants can earn a credential within a matter of days, versus months or years for traditional technical certification programs.

Micro certifications are well-liked by workers – and supervisors – according to a January 2017 Linux Academy/Cybrary survey of 6,000 IT pros. They allow employees to rapidly gain specific knowledge sets that answer specific needs.

Anthony James CEO and Founder Linux Academy

Anthony James
CEO and Founder
Linux Academy

“The growing micro certification trend is driven predominantly by industries such as IT and cybersecurity that have a workforce skills gap where jobs can’t be filled because of a lack of qualified applicants,” according to Anthony James, CEO and founder of Linux Academy, an online Linux and cloud training firm based in Fort Worth, Texas.

The survey, conducted in partnership with Cybrary, a provider of no-cost, open source cybersecurity Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), found IT professionals use micro certification programs to keep up with changing technologies and also learn at their own pace. Some 86 percent of respondents said they prefer learning and testing in small increments to receive IT skill credentials.

Thirty-five percent of respondents said that micro certifications have either helped them get or advance in a job; 70 percent think their company would benefit from partnering with micro certification providers; and 85 percent would most likely pursue micro certifications if employers facilitated the offering.

Opinions on micro certification versus traditional IT training varied. More than half – 58 percent – of respondents said micro certifications convey the same level of technical proficiency as traditional training and more than 94 percent believe that micro certifications give entry-level job candidates an edge in competing for jobs.

In terms of costs, 82 percent of respondents understood that micro certifications are more affordable than traditional IT training. Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed paid $25 or more for their own micro certification courses. Most respondents believe their company spends an average of up to $25,000 annually on IT skills training for employees.

Difference Between Certificates and Certification
Many government and government contractor jobs require certifications from established organizations, such as the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) certification conferred by (ISC)2, which offers a portfolio of credentials that are part of a holistic, programmatic approach to security. Candidates must have a minimum of five years of paid full-time work experience in two of the eight domains of the CISSP Common Body of Knowledge (CBK). It covers application development security, cloud computing, communications and network security, identity and access management, mobile security, risk management and more.

CISSP certification is costly, ranging from $2,000 to $4,000, depending on the choice of study – CISSP Boot Camp, regular classroom or online training. The six-hour exam alone costs $599.

But Dan Waddell, managing director for North America with (ISC)2, doesn’t see such certifications going away.

“I don’t believe the certification requirement is overkill and I believe most cybersecurity executives in the government would agree,” Waddell said.

According to the recently released federal results of the 2017 Global Information Security Workforce Study, 73 percent of federal agencies require their IT staff members to hold information security certifications. The survey of over 19,600 InfoSec professionals includes responses from 2,620 U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), federal civilian and federal contractor employees. The study was conducted by The Center for Cyber Safety and Education and sponsored by (ISC)2, Booz Allen Hamilton, and Alta Associates. Findings of the report will be released throughout 2017 in a series of dedicated reports.

To effectively retain existing InfoSec professionals and attract new hires, federal respondents indicated that offering training programs, paying for professional cybersecurity certifications, boosting compensation, and providing more flexible and remote work schedules and opportunities were among the most important initiatives.

Still, Waddell acknowledged that traditional certifications must evolve over time, and that (ISC)2 must develop ways to support government efforts to move toward a more performance-based certification system.

Micro certifications aren’t necessarily a replacement for baseline job requirements, however. Scott Cassity, senior director at the Maryland-based SANS Institute Global Information Assurance Certification (GIAC) center, said there is room for both in the complex and rapidly evolving world of cybersecurity.

“I can appreciate folks saying [they need] more bite-size micro certifications,” Cassity said. “I can appreciate that there might be some particular bite-size training we need on a particular tool, a particular technique.

“But if you back up and say: ‘Hey, I want someone who can be a defender. I want them to have a broad range of skills.’ Then, we don’t think that is something that will be absorbed in bite-size chunks,” Cassity continued. “It is going to be very rigorous and challenging training. It is studying above and beyond that training.”

Take the GIAC program, for example, which offers several dozen certifications for a range of different skill sets. Courses typically run four months and cost $1,249. Most students spend 40 to 50 hours studying outside of the classroom, Cassity said. Like CISSP, GIAC is a DOD-approved credentialing body, and its programs meet requirements laid out in the DOD Directive 8570, setting training, certification and management requirements of government employees involved with Information Assurance and security.

(ISC)2’s Waddell agrees there is a difference between a certificate covering practical cyber security knowledge or a specific skill set and professional certification more rigorously assessing a broader range of knowledge, skills and competencies.

The cybersecurity industry keeps evolving, Cassity said. Fundamental skills for information security will stand the test of time. But with mobile security, forensics and other rapidly growing technologies, job functions and certifications must change, as well.

Building a Skills-based Workforce
Federal agencies are looking to adopt the skills-based workforce definitions developed under the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education (NICE), a partnership between government, academia, and the private sector that’s managed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). NICE aims to standardize expectations for cybersecurity education, training, and workforce development across the industry to level-set expectations for employers and employees alike.

“We are not in favor of check-the-box for knowledge and skills,” said Rodney Petersen, NICE director at NIST.  “We really want a robust process for validating an employee’s knowledge, skills and abilities or a job seeker’s knowledge, skills, and abilities.”

The NICE Cybersecurity Workforce Framework (NCWF) – released by NIST in November 2016 – is the centerpiece, describing seven broad job categories: security provision; operate and maintain; protect and defend; analyze; operate and collect; oversight and development and investigate. It also includes 31 specialty areas and 50 work roles, each predicated on specific knowledge and skills, Petersen said.

NICE aims to improve education programs, co-curriculum experiences, training and certification to increase the quality of those credentials, he added.

NICE also impacts certifications. Defense Department Directive 8140, Cyberspace Workforce Management, issued in August 2015, sets the stage for replacing DOD’s certification-based requirements with skill-based assessments rooted in NICE.

According to the 2017 Global Information Security Workforce Study, 30 percent of federal respondents said their organizations have at least partially adopted the NICE Cybersecurity Workforce Framework.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is using the NICE framework to build up its cybersecurity workforce. As a government-wide workforce framework, NICE “helps us to implement best practices, to identify, find and recruit the really good people,” Phyllis Schneck, DHS deputy undersecretary told GovTechWorks last year.

Some certifying organizations are starting to develop new “performance-based” certifications that are more in line with the NICE standard:  ISACA unveiled its Cyber Security Nexus Practitioner (CSXP) certification, which tests a candidate’s skills in a live, virtual cyber-lab, and CompTIA’s A+, Network+, Security+ and CompTIA Advanced Security Practitioner (CASP) certifications also include performance-based assessments.

Both ISACA and CompTIA are building their new hands-on programs around the NICE standards and definitions. NICE doesn’t undo the call for certifications, but instead emphasizes functional roles to better align candidates’ skills with specific job functions.

(ISC)2 began mapping CISSP certification requirements to the NICE Cybersecurity Workforce Framework last year, Waddell said.

“Certification is just the beginning,” he added. “You are now required to maintain that certification. You are required to set aside a certain number of hours per year to maintain that certification.” Those Continuing Professional Education (CPE) hours can include hands-on training or even skilled-based micro certs.

“In a perfect world,” Waddell said, “a certification program and certificate program can co-exist in a healthy way.”

1 Comment

  1. Rick

    UMass Lowell has launched an online NCSF workforce development program ( that is built around three training tracks that teach individuals and organizations “how to” Engineer, Test, Operate and Improve the Technical and Business functions of a NIST Cybersecurity Framework (NCSF) Program. Each learning track also aligns with the workforce catagories outlined in the NICE Cybersecurity Workforce Framework. Candidates can schedule an instructor led classroom program with New Horizons Learning Centers or they can take the program as an online self paced video program.


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